- In 1889, Major League Baseball reduced the number of balls needed to achieve a walk from five to four.
- In 1973, the American League instituted a new concept known as the designated hitter.
- And in 2017, Major League baseball introduced ….
No one yet knows how that third bullet will read, but baseball’s story appears to be primed for another significant shake-up this winter.
At USA Today, Bob Nightengale writes about the upcoming changes to the game, as forecasted by Commissioner Rob Manfred. The changes will, of course, be negotiated between MLB and the MLB Players’ Association, but with the current collective bargaining agreement set to expire on December 1, things may happen sooner than you think.
Against the backdrop of an aging fan base (average age of 56, by one measure), offensive troughs, and increasing length/pace of games, Manfred suggests that anything from “altering the strike zone, to limiting the number of pitching changes in a game, to curtailing the number of shifts, to even installing 20-second time clocks for pitchers,” is on the table. If even one of those changes were to be actually be implemented for the 2017 season, the impact would be astounding and, for lack of a better word, game-changing.
On the latter change (pitch clocks), Manfred seems to be especially convinced – especially given the regressive effects of the current pace of play rules (things started off great at the beginning of 2015, but have actually gotten worse since then). “We feel it’s [pitch clock] been effective in the minor leagues,” Manfred said. “The more we can have on the field, constant reminders so it’s in front of people’s minds, the better off we are in terms of continuing to move the game along.” A clock is certainly an obvious way to achieve that, and – as radical as it may sound – I’m all for it. [Brett: Same. The rule *already exists* requiring pitchers to deliver the ball within 12 seconds with the bases empty. It is not a new rule! The 20-second limit, even with runners on, is completely reasonable, and could make a huge difference with respect to pace. I know many pitchers wouldn’t like it, but spread over the course of 200+ pitches in a game, even a few seconds reduced between each pitch can make a significant difference in game length and pace. It also might have the side effect of tilting the odds ever so slightly back in favor of the batter.]
On some of the other moves, my opinion is split.
For example, I am not too anxious to ban/limit defensive shifts, although I certainly can understand the attraction. Just five years ago, according to Nightengale, baseball featured roughly 2,400 shifts. In 2016, we’re on pace for about 28,000 (that’s another “0”). The extreme explosion of defensive shifts (and the offense it presumably zaps) is, at a minimum, an interesting avenue to explore (although, the Cubs have managed to assemble the best defense in baseball, despite shifting among the very least). [Brett: I don’t much care for banning shifts, either. Sure, they have had an impact on offense, but BABIP is back up this year, and power numbers are increasing. I think, especially when you consider how little the Cubs shift, and they have the dang best defense in baseball, that teams are adjusting. Let them continue that process.]
There has also been a record number of pitchers (relievers) used per game in 2016, and their effectiveness is as high as ever. Combined with the increased defensive shifts and record high number of strikeouts per game (15.57), and you can see why a little offensive bump might be necessary. Velocity, of course, has as much to do with that as anything. [Brett: I like the rule that, I believe, was originally proposed by Theo Epstein several years ago – every reliever who enters the game must face, at a minimum, two batters.]
But if you’re worried about too many changes too soon, don’t be. According to Manfred no decision will be taken lightly and almost none of the above will occur overnight. Instead, the new rules will be introduced slowly, over multiple seasons with constant dialogue and input coming from all directions. Indeed, Manfred says that MLB is not even at the point of soliciting recommendations or decisions on what is or isn’t possible. The only shot for instant change, according to Manfred, is the shrinking of the strike-zone, but I’ll be that will be met with some of the least resistance, overall.
But still, prepare yourself, baseball fans, because changes are coming. And unlike winter in ‘Game of Thrones’, they might happen sooner than you expect.